How often do we associate headship with playfulness? Yes, we have to be accountable. Yes, we have to maintain safety and manage seemingly impossible workloads. But can we also enjoy ourselves?
Last week, I spent an hour in the early years foundation stage playground at my school. Lunch cover was needed, so I offered to go out to play.
Fourteen nursery children were staying for lunch that day, alongside 30 Reception children. As soon as I walked on to the playground I was greeted by Adam, who demanded to know why I was there. In the investigation area, I noticed a retractable tape measure; I picked it up and set about measuring the height of the writing hut. Immediately Adam was at my side, offering to hold the tape while I read out the number.
Ellie and Jacob watched for a moment, then joined in as we attempted to measure each door. I explained that I was on a mission to measure the garden. A cluster of children screeched with delight as numbers were triumphantly announced: “The hut is 1,088mm! The gate is 2,875mm!”
Oscar said we should measure the path leading to the sandpit. I suggested we pace it out first – 67 steps. “Quick, let’s get the tape. Who can hold it down? Who can read the numbers? How big is it?”
Out of the blue, Charlie mentioned that he thought he could see an unusual footprint in the sand. Was it a bear? Should we try to find it? YES!
Off we stomped towards the willow house – would the bear be inside? Nothing there. “Claw prints over here,” Molly called. Cael discovered a hole in a tree. Bajeet announced he had heard some roaring. At some point it emerged that we were no longer in pursuit of a bear – it was definitely a great big GRUFFALO!
The wonder of immersing oneself in imaginative play – suspending disbelief, tiptoeing towards tree trunks to discover what may be lurking behind, searching for clues, listening for sounds, sharing ideas and building our game together – was a delight. We even tried to lure the monster by blowing bubbles and singing softly.
When playtime was over, I sighed happily and agreed to come and search again soon.
School leadership is a serious business, but the reason I am still a headteacher is that I want to remain connected with children and childhood. A school leader can too easily become swamped with paperwork, meetings and routine.
Primary education is at its best when teachers are able to offer expertise and knowledge while understanding learning from the perspective of the child. By playing with the foundation-stage children as they explored the many areas of their garden, I was reminded of the importance of recognising that pedagogical expertise comes in many forms.
Understanding how children learn, what inspires and delights them and how to extend their imaginations are central to good teaching. But they are also the core of effective primary leadership. These skills were all at play as we explored the garden in pursuit of an invisible creature.
It’s important that everyone who works in our primary schools knows how to connect with the vitality, curiosity and energy of young minds. Too often we are in danger of losing the joy in pursuit of measurable outcomes.
If it’s been a while since you or your headteacher went out to play in search of a Gruffalo, maybe the time has come.
Dame Alison Peacock is executive headteacher of the Wroxham School in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, and a government adviser